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Another Look at Sola Scriptura’s Best Defense

During my spiritual journey away from Protestantism, including Oneness Pentecostalism, I came to reject one of Protestantism’s core doctrines: sola scriptura, the idea that the Bible alone is our infallible guide to Christian teaching.

In their influential essay, A Defense of Sola Scriptura, Protestant theologians and apologists Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie provide a valiant defense of the Bible-Alone approach to Christian authority as well as a critique of the Catholic position, especially as found in the writings of contemporary Catholic apologists. But, upon fresh review, like sola scriptura itself, it’s ultimately unconvincing.

The essay claims that sola scriptura is a biblical teaching. In support of this claim, it cites 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and draws this conclusion: “Scripture, without tradition, is said to be ‘God-breathed’…and thus by it believers are ‘competent, equipped for every good work…this flies in the face of the Catholic claim” (emphasis added). The authors go on to respond to the Catholic rebuttal that New Testament references to the “sufficiency” of Scripture, given the assumption that this is truly what they mean, prove too much, since they are references to the Old Testament only. In reply, Geisler and MacKenzie reason that “it is inconsistent to argue that God-breathed writings in the Old Testament are sufficient, but the inspired writings of the New Testament are not.”

With respect to 2 Timothy 3, the text says that Scripture is inspired by God and is useful “so that the man of God may be complete.” Geisler and MacKenzie interpret the phrase “man of God” as a reference generally to believers.

However, the Bible uses this phrase nearly eighty times and it consistently does not refer to all believers. In the Torah, for instance, it is only used of Moses (e.g., Deut. 33:1). It is used of Samuel, the judge, prophet, and priest (1 Sam. 9:6, 7, 8). It is used of Elijah (1 Kings 17:18). And, interestingly enough, it is used of Timothy (1 Tim. 6:11). It is clearly a title of honor for distinguished spokespersons for God, not a generic reference to believers. Reading this text in light of that fact, then, proves exactly the opposite point that Geisler and MacKenzie are trying to prove. This text is affirming that Scripture is useful for equipping “spokespersons for God” to carry out their office.

The Catholic position is that Scripture indeed informs and is foundational to all that we teach and believe but that there are still “men of God” who have the office of teaching and explaining what we find in Scripture. Paul is most assuredly not teaching that, because “believers” generally have the Bible, there is nothing beyond it that we can trust. Neither is he claiming that the Bible was intended to stand “alone” in guiding the people of God into a true understanding of divine revelation.

There are also problems with the second charge. It is “inconsistent,” we are told, to argue for the sufficiency of the Old Testament and not the New Testament based on biblical references. This is so, they say, because the writings of the New Testament are also called “Scripture” (2 Pet. 3:15-16).

This response completely misses the point of the Catholic argument, which is a reductio ad absurdum. It is an effort to show that, if the New Testament references to the proposed Protestant notion of sola scriptura do indeed prove the Protestant’s point, it means we don’t need the New Testament. That is what “sufficiency” means! If we need something more than the Old Testament, those books must, of necessity, be less than sufficient.

The Catholic position is that the Protestant notion of biblical authority is missing something crucial and that the texts used to prove otherwise do not do so. Consequently, in the end, Geisler and MacKenzie beg the question, since they assume that Scripture alone can be given the highest trust while the community (i.e., the Church with succession from the apostles), the very community that recognized those same writings as divinely inspired, cannot be trusted.

In short, using New Testament texts that refer to the Old Testament as proof for the doctrine of sola scriptura cannot possibly prove that conclusion unless they also prove that the New Testament is not needed: a conclusion that neither Protestants nor Catholics embrace.

Given the great respect I have for Norman Geisler (nothing against MacKenzie, I just read lots of Geisler through the years), it is disappointing to read the article accumulate poorly thought-out biblical arguments in support of the sola scriptura position. I’ll address a few more before concluding.

Jesus and the apostles, we are told, “constantly appealed to the Bible as the final court of appeal.” Yet Jesus regularly interprets and advances the meaning of the Old Testament based on his own authority and word (e.g., Matt. 5:17-48). The authors admit as much by conceding that, until the New Testament was finished, the faithful could appeal to “an authority outside the Bible,” but, they claim, there is no proof that a “nonbiblical infallible authority is in existence today.”

This is an astonishing admission! Doesn’t their admission that during the first century there was a living, oral form of divine authority that was not Scripture undermine their reading of the texts they think prove sola scriptura? Surely Catholics ought to explain their understanding of how an oral authority continues to exist, but the fact remains that the texts that are used to support sola scriptura simply do not do so; evidenced by Geisler and MacKenzie’s acknowledgment of the “exception” of Christ and the apostles.

They assert that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees “for not accepting sola Scriptura and negating the final authority of the Word of God” by their traditions (Matt. 15:3, 6). But if that is what Jesus meant by these words, why does he elsewhere rebuke them for not accepting his authority based on his works (John 10:37-38)? Jesus does not insist on sola scriptura but, instead, directs their attention to his person and works that they should accept because of what they reveal. This is simply not reconcilable with their claim that Jesus taught sola scriptura.

Geisler and MacKenzie claim that the “Bible constantly warns us ‘not to go beyond what is written’” (1 Cor. 4:6), citing also Moses’ charge that no one “add or subtract” from the Torah as well as the closing words of Revelation (Deut. 4:2; Rev. 22:18-19). It is truly perplexing that such often-careful minds do not see the crushingly illogical case they are making.

If Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 4:6 prove their point, the Corinthians should not have accepted what Paul preached to them as authoritative nor should they accept any new written scriptures, including what Paul was writing to them at that time! To “go beyond” what has already been written is to exclude all that comes after it. If we accept their reading of Deuteronomy 4:2, we would have to exclude everything not contained in the Law of Moses.

If they are making the claim that we can only accept what is “written” and nothing beyond it, as already noted, their argument fails because they admit Christ and the apostles exercised divine authority in the first century through their preaching and teaching. If they are claiming that divine authority could only continue afterward in the Church in written form, they must tell us how they know which writings constitute divine authority.

In the final analysis, the answer they will give will mirror the conclusions made by the very Church they claim has no divine authority beyond citing Scripture. But this reduces to a circular argument that refuses to acknowledge that there is something outside the circle of their reasoning that they are trusting; all the while denying any biblical warrant for that trust.

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